David Halberstam, R.I.P.*

Two of David Halberstam’s books made a huge impact on me: The Best and the Brightest, and The Powers that Be. I don’t think a writer has captured the way bad governmental decisions can metastasize from good intentions into political manipulation better than Halberstam did in Best…. The Powers That Be, an intertwined narrative history of four big news organizations (CBS, Time, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times), contains a superb introductory history of Los Angeles.

Then, Halberstam started to mix books about sports into his public affairs writing career, focusing on particular moments in sports that allowed him to talk about social change in America, without departing too far from the drama of the games and personalities. I particularly recommend October 1964, which happens to be about the first World Series I was really able to follow, pitting the “establishment” New York Yankees against a St. Louis Cardinal team that was dominated by three of the greatest black players of that era: Bob Gibson, Curt Flood and Lou Brock. The morality play isn’t always so neat and tidy, but it gives him a theme to ride as he tells stories about so many baseball legends and follows the Series’ intensely competitive course.

Sadly, David Halberstam was killed an automobile accident Monday morning in Menlo Park, south of San Francisco. He was being driven to an interview with another sports hero, former New York Giant quarterback Y.A. Tittle, a participant in the NFL’s “greatest game,” the Giants’ 1958 championship game against the Baltimore Colts. Halberstam was the only person who died from the accident — he was dead at the scene. A UC Berkeley graduate student in journalism was driving the car, which was broadsided while making a left turn.

Halberstam was a more traditional reporter than some of his 1960s-era counterparts like Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson, but he had just as big an impact on the era’s journalism. He was critical of the leaders whose misrule resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of American soldiers in Vietnam, but he built his case not with invective, but with thorough reporting and engrossing storytelling. His passing should prompt interest in his entire catalogue, which will only make him more of an inspiration to non-fiction writers of any era.

*UPDATE, 4/24/07:  Sheesh. Shouldn’t Slate’s Jack Shafer wait til Halberstam’s grave is dug before throwing dirt on him? 

Yeah, okay, he wasn’t a great stylist.  But his sports books were good, less prey to his windy tendencies.  It was interesting to look at a list of Halberstam’s works.  I was under the misimpression that all his books after about 1985 were sports-related.  Just all his best books, I guess.  The sports books, his NY Times Vietnam war reporting and especially The Best and The Brightest will be his legacy.   

**UPDATE, 4/25/07:  This is better.  The Washington Post‘s Henry Allen writes affectionally about Halberstam’s unique style, notes that he had detractors, but shows how the style was a reflection of the man, his values and, yes, his ego:

He started working in the mid-’50s, before journalism was hip. He covered big stories: civil rights in the South, war in Africa, and Vietnam when John Kennedy was getting us into it with the help of “The Best and the Brightest,” as Halberstam called the elite and arrogant aides whose folly brought on our failure there.

He was not cool. He spewed sentences whose dependent clauses piled up into midden heaps of outrage or joy.

As part of an interview at lunch in 1979, he gave me this reaction to a bad review of his 1979 media book, “The Powers That Be.”

“Naturally, you want a book to live and be liked, it’s like children, but there’s a law of averages — you want the book to live. Some people aren’t going to like the book. Some people aren’t going to like you. Some are not going to like the success which — your anticipated success. And, after all, I’m not Tolstoy. It’s a very unusual book, unusual in its conception, unusual in its execution, unusual in its organization.”

All of this erupted from a fierce scrim of incantatory facial gestures, eyebrows divebombing his big nose, his lower lip jutting to show lower teeth but never upper ones while he oraculated to a reporter.

This was in The Summerhouse, a discreetly upscale restaurant just down the street from his townhouse on the Upper East Side. (“This is a wonderful neighborhood, I love living here, a truly remarkable place, one of the last strongholds of the middle class in Manhattan.” I wondered: Middle class? On 91st between Park and Madison?)

His schoolboy earnestness seemed preposterous in a man this famous, sophisticated and well connected, but it was the preposterousness that made him likable rather than insufferable. It even made him lovable unless you were on his enemies list, which was not short.

How he could roar on, gaining sincerity with every word. The New Republic satirized the same book: “David Halberstam. Halberstam, that was what everybody called him (after all, it was his name). They always said that what Halberstam needed was a good editor, his sentences ran on and on, he piled phrase upon phrase and clause upon clause, he used commas the way other men used periods.”

He was only following the writing teacher’s advice by writing the way he talked. He talked that way enough that his friends called him Rolling Thunder, Jehovah and Ahab.

It’s hard to stop quoting.  Just read the whole thing.

3 thoughts on “David Halberstam, R.I.P.*

  1. This is definitely the tragic passing of one of the giants of journalism. Unfortunately, the way things are going, we may not see many more like him. His “The Fifties” is a huge tome but contains a lot of great stuff. John, Peggy Lee and June Christie might even be in there.
    Plus, he was on the way to interview Y. A. Tittle! One of my first sports heroes…terribly unfair that we will be deprived of Mr. Halberstam’s writing about Tittle and that era of the NFL.

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